When I read Michael Gove’s weekend article in MailOnline I was a bit angry, a little hurt and probably felt I was getting a taste of what it’s like to be wrongly scapegoated and discriminated against. Usually when Mr Gove makes a speech or writes something that’s clumsy and insulting to teachers I smile sympathetically and tell myself that he’ll be gone in a couple of years. I have a mental picture of a slightly sinister Graham Norton; annoying and enthusiastic but generally harmless, something akin to a mediaeval court jester. But this article genuinely troubled me. It appeared to be a deliberate misrepresentation of the facts disguised in blatantly inflammatory rhetoric designed to turn people against the teaching profession in general.
Back when he began his job as Education Secretary, I agreed with a lot of what Mr. Gove was saying, and to some extent I still do. I like the idea of terminal exams. I like the idea of an intellectually challenging academic curriculum. And I like the idea of improving discipline and empowering teachers. But all this goes out of the window when I read an article that clearly sets out to incite hatred against a group of people who, in my experience, work hard to do their best for students. One colleague of mine pointed out that this was simply Gove’s way of setting out his leadership challenge, flexing his muscles as a champion prepared to stand against the enemies of his, and by extension readers of the Daily Mails’, ideals. I can understand that. Teresa May did the same thing the other week. But there are ways and means, and Mr Gove’s was just in bad taste. If the Home Secretary had written an article in this vein about immigration and the economy she’d have been pulled up on accusations of racism. Had Ian Duncan Smith written a similar article about recipients of state benefit, there would have been uproar. But as it’s teachers, those “enemies of promise”, Mr Gove can get away with it.
Reading the article, I was reminded several times of the rhetoric of the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1950s America, the vehicle by which the McCarthy witch hunts were carried out. The “Red Threat” is echoed in Gove’s reference to his belief that the people who oppose his policies are living on a “Red Planet” tarnished with crazy left-wing idealists bent on undermining society and order, “valuing Marxism, revering jargon and fighting excellence.” He refers to academics who disagree with him as “The Blob”, a mutually back-slapping group of self-congratulators more interested in theory than practice, and he claims that “there are still a tiny minority who see themselves as part of The Blob and have enlisted as “Enemies of Promise.”
I have a few problems with this. For a start, what is the “Promise” that the enemies have “enlisted” against? To “enlist” implies signing up to wage war. What is it these teachers are waging war against? They’re against the policies of a man who is threatening to undermine the livelihoods that they work hard for. They’re against a man who quotes the theories of academics whose own points of view are diametrically opposed to his own and who fails to understand the implications of these quotes. For example, earlier this year Mr Gove quoted Gramsci as influencing his policies. Gramsci the self-proclaimed Marxist who railed against the hegemony of the capitalist classes! Then he quoted an American psychologist and claimed to ascribe to his theories of education and knowledge, only to be told by the psychologist that he’d misunderstood his ideas and had only looked at the simplest, earliest parts of knowledge acquisition, ignoring the latter parts of his book dealing with higher order thinking. And in this article he manages to misunderstand and misrepresent Marxism. He tries to rubbish an article in which two academics who signed a letter that went against his reforms argued that “Marxism is as relevant as ever”. But of course it is. Marxism is simply a way of understanding how society works by revealing the hidden structures and means by which power is exercised by certain groups over others. How can that be irrelevant? If we are to understand society we need to understand the structures and power relations that operate within it.
The most irresponsible aspect of this article though is the childishly simple use of emotive language. He makes his article sound as though it is a rally cry for the just to go to war against the “Enemies of Promise” (whatever that promise may be). He even manages to get a reference to Churchill in there. He claims these “Enemies of Promise are a set of politically motivated individuals who have been actively trying to prevent millions of our poorest children getting the education they need.” One has a mental image of a group of particularly malevolent individuals, more than likely with beady eyes, crooked backs and pointy noses, systematically working to ensure that “our poorest children” are deliberately denied their right to education. What rubbish! Surely even the Little Englanders that read the Mail can see through his grotesque rhetorical posturing and manipulation. I have been in education for 10 years and I honestly cannot think of an individual teacher who fits the description of one of these “Enemies of Promise”. I may know of teachers whose methods I don’t agree or whose approach I don’t think is especially effective, but I don’t believe they actively set out with the intention to inhibit the learning of students. I also know many teachers who are members of Unions and who want to protect their pensions and salaries and are prepared to strike to do this. But that doesn’t mean that they want to systematically seek ways to prevent aspiration and achievement. It means they want to protect themselves, their families and their jobs in economically difficult times, and get what they signed up for when they entered the job in the first place.
But the really silly thing here is that in writing this article our esteemed Education Secretary is inciting a hate campaign against the very people he needs to implement his policies and through whose work his success or failure will be measured. I don’t know a single teacher who would deny that it is their job to develop “mastery of English, fluency in arithmetic, the ability to reason scientifically, knowledge of these islands and their history – to (allow students to) take their place as confident modern citizens.” But I do know a lot of teachers who will be further exaggerated by Mr Gove’s attempts to depict them as the enemy within, a threat to this country’s future progress and development.
An F for your judgement and childish rhetoric, Mr Gove.
Yesterday I had a lesson observation with one of the groups with which I have been using SOLO taxonomy to inform planning. The group consists of about 18 boys and 2 girls most of whom have SEN statements for such diverse things as behaviour, literacy, autism and ADHD, and who have official targets of D and below. When I found I would be teaching this group in September I had mixed feelings. I was pleased in part because I have often taught these types of groups in the past and have had good relationships with them. Several years ago I picked up another teacher’s groups who traditionally taught such students and this has seemed to stick. There is never a dull moment and some of the ideas that these students come up with are utterly original and brilliant and way beyond anything that top set students would ever conceive of. However, it is also true that it takes a lot more hard work to ensure these types of students progress and I was very aware that under the new framework it would be very difficult to achieve an acceptable observation outcome. In all honesty, I was dreading being observed with the group. This was in fact the third time I’ve been seen with them this year, but the other times were not linked to CPD. The first time was a 20 minute drop in by two AHTs for which no feedback was given. The second was in January and was part of an SEN inspection. The Head came and observed with the SEN inspector and gave me informal verbal feedback. The conclusion was that the lesson would have received a 3 but it was still a good achievement with such a challenging group.
So the official observation which formed part of the CPD review took place yesterday and this lesson received a 2. I put this entirely down to the reading I’ve done since September and my working towards implementing “visible learning” methods in general and SOLO in particular. I also owe a massive debt to @LearningSpy (David Didau) for pinching so many of his ideas, and to @TeacherToolkit for making lesson planning such a painless activity with the 5 minute plan. Below is an outline of the lesson which was designed to allow students to learn how to make meaningful comparisons between texts, in this case two poems; “The Soldier” and “Dulce et Decorum Est”. It is the fourth week of lessons on this unit, which incorporates a Shakespeare play and compares it to two poems.
As students entered the room they had two tasks to complete. The first was to write their homework task into their planners (see previous post on setting homework. This week’s task is to write a letter to Michael Gove explaining how lessons in school could be improved), the second to decide who they would rather sit next to in the lesson between Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke (the class had done some biographical research on the poets at the start of the unit) and give reasons for this. Their photographs were displayed on the IWB to give students a visual focus. There were many latecomers to the lesson from break but this wasn’t a problem as they could enter the task at any time. Five minutes in we held a group discussion where students shared their conclusions and unanimously chose Wilfred Owen because he’d actually been in the trenches and his poem was “less boring” (meaning stuff actually happens). At this point students were challenged to write a definition in their books of the words “compare” and “contrast”, following the “Brain Buddy Book Boss” sequence courtesy of @LazyTeacher Jim Smith (I prefer this to Brain Book Buddy Boss as it’s more economical in terms of time and encourages collaboration). Once we had the distinction between the words firmly grasped I did a quick show of thumbs-up/down to check their own confidence in understanding the terms. We then moved onto the main task, a variation on “comparison alley” but with one half of the alley devoted to comparisons and the other half to contrasts. Students were given a tick list of things to compare and contrast between the poems which they had to work through. The list got progressively more difficult and I differentiated the task by telling each group where I expected them to get up to on the tick list as a minimum. I originnally planned to give them separate ticklists but felt this was in danger of capping the progress of some students. At this point we paused to check the grade ladder on the window (coutesy of @LearningSpy) and decide which skill we were using and therefore what level we were working at. We decided that we were “exploring” and so were working at a grade B level. This is a real ego booster when working with students who have official targets of Ds and Es. At that point it was time for me to let them go and get on with the task while I milled around checking understanding and pointing to my “Brain Buddy Book Boss” posters when they asked me questions. Undoubtedly this was an extremely challenging task, especially for LAS, but they all got stuck in without exception. Many of them were unclear about exactly what was expected of them and I had to go around and clarify what the task entailed. Once some students were totally clear I was able to direct others to them with their questions, and this freed me up to talk to the observers about the group and explain our SOLO experiment (see previous post). At this point the observers left, but the group continued with the task. As some students finished early, they went to compare their findings with other early finishers or to support those who were struggling, and the whole thing was pulled together with a group plenary in which all students discussed what they’d found in a class discussion. I was incredibly pleased that the lesson went so well and can only attribute it to networking with other teachers and pinching ideas from practitioners with better ideas than me. There is no doubt that if I was the same teacher I was in September and had not modified my practice over the last few weeks and months, the best I could have hoped for with this group is a 3. So here’s to online professional networking and sharing of good ideas.
The SOLO experiment involving students in medium-term planning is developing very nicely. (Click this link to see how it started: a href=”https://andywarner78.wordpress.com/2013/02/28/twitter-solo-experiment-visible-learning-student-led-co-construction/” title=”To”>I’m now running it with four groups including a HA and LA year 10 group studying and comparing Romeo and Juliet and War Poetry, a Film Studies group who are studying an introductory unit on film production and the macro and micro elements of film, and a year 11 group who are doing exam revision on Of Mice and Men. Each group has been presented with the objectives and outcomes and has planned its own learning journey. Obviously I’ve still been planning the lesson delivery (using @teachertoolkit’s 5 minute lesson plan), but I’ve been much more flexible in letting students choose the way they learn and have been happy to change a planned lesson in light of ideas that students have contributed. The main thing I’ve noticed (and which has been nice) is that I’m taking much more of a back seat in the classroom and there’s much more of a culture of help and support among students. This has been helped by a couple of laminated posters that I’ve stuck up around the room that I point to when students tell me they “don’t get it” or try to ask me for an answer without exhausting other avenues first (relating to the “brain, book, buddy, boss idea), and by writing some motivational messages based on classroom research that I found in @LearningSpy’s book on outstanding lessons (25% of all learning is gained from peers etc.). So overall, so far it’s going well. The students know what they’re going to be doing before they come in the room, they’re controlling their own learning and I’m doing less active teaching. As this is a new way of working, I’m still doing a lot of chivvying along and reminding kids to focus, but hopefully as this way of working becomes embedded in my groups and it becomes ingrained that this is how things are going to be done in our classroom, things will run more and more smoothly. However, next week I’m being observed with the LA y10 group and one activity will be a variation on “comparison alley”, looking at similarities and differences between Dulce Et Decorum Est and The Soldier, so that will be the litmus test.